Play premieres after 250 years

The Massacre, Theatre Royal, June 23-27IT IS not every day that an audience gets to see the public world premiere of a drama.Elizabeth Inchbald's The Massacre was written in 1792 as a response to the blood-letting of the French Revolution, but performed only in private because of its then inflammatory political message.

Mark Crossley

The Massacre, Theatre Royal, June 23-27

IT IS not every day that an audience gets to see the public world premiere of a drama.

Elizabeth Inchbald's The Massacre was written in 1792 as a response to the blood-letting of the French Revolution, but performed only in private because of its then inflammatory political message.


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This week it was unleashed on the Bury St Edmunds stage as part of the theatre's dig through the neglected Georgian canon, of which the works of Stanningfield-born Inchbald are an important part.

Director Colin Blumenau acknowledges the weight of history on his and the cast's shoulders: where most drama has been seen before and can be compared with other productions, this one comes to us fresh off the page.

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This is a brave modern dress performance, the multi-racial cast sweltering in some unspecified hot country. It speaks of timeless themes, man's inhumanity to man and the ease with which, through history, leaders have bent the mob to acts of horror, from the English Civil War which set brother against brother, to the French terror, the persecution of Jews in 1930s Germany and the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s.

As the tragedy unfolds there are strong performances from the touching Maya Sondhi as the wife, Madhav Sharma as the respectable father and Eugene Washington as the husband. The latter two, along with Abdi Gouhad as the judge, deliver real weighty stage presence.

Trapped inside their big house, a family reacts as the action goes on elsewhere, the nearing mob symbolised by a beating drum outside the door.

The global perspective of this production is highlighted by the clever mix of races and languages. An atmospheric interlude in which Gouhad recites in Arabic brought more of the world's trouble-spots before the imagination. The shock of the mob leader's Northern Irish accent was a great moment, with not only the troubles of the past 500 years brought to mind. Given this play's call for tolerance, last week's persecution of Romanian immigrants in parts of Belfast was also dragged centre-stage, as the soldier, played by Russell Simpson, led the crusade against anyone “different”.

Inchbald hits you between the eyes with her views on politics and the place of women in society. The husband refuses to give his “fair” wife a weapon with which to defend herself and her children. That's not women's work.

The wife rails against the men who are the cause of these atrocities. So given Inchbald's message that it is men who cause violence and women and children who must suffer it, why were half the mob female?

Another jarring note is an irritating clappy musical beginning, where most of the words are indistinct, and a similar, wailing end. The music of Eamonn O'Dwyer - an excellent Feste in the theatre's Twelfth Night this year - is again to the fore, sometimes for good, sometimes a little incongruous.

Those points aside, the Theatre Royal, with this production, continues its mining for 18th-century nuggets, strengthens its hold on a long overlooked dramatic niche and has produced a play with real resonance for today.

Mark Crossley

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